Are Children Learning

Senate panel nixes pricey ISTEP rescore

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Despite months of controversy over last year’s state standardized exam, Indiana legislators have effectively dropped an effort to rescore the 2015 ISTEP.

A bill that was initially introduced to force a rescore of the problem-plagued test was quietly amended today to remove language that would have made a rescore possible. The bill itself — House Bill 1395, which would trigger an ISTEP review that could lead to the state scrapping the test completely by July 2017 — moved forward with an 8-3 vote in the Senate Education Committee today.

Some legislators remain concerned about the 2015 test, which was beset with scoring delays and technical glitches, but the $8 million to $10 million price tag on the rescore made that a tougher sell.

Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the high price of the rescore would have needed approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee. That could have doomed the bill, so the rescore was dropped.

Kruse also isn’t concerned that there’s a need for a rescore at all. He said he thinks the test itself was fine, but the problems have been with the technology used to administer and score the exam.

“It was the technical computer stuff that messed it all up,” Kruse said. “It wasn’t that the test wasn’t valid, and it wasn’t that the kids weren’t capable of answering the questions.”

The rescore measure was a big part of why the bill was introduced earlier this year. After the Indianapolis Star revealed possible scoring mistakes from test creator CTB, educators, legislators and members of the public raised concerns that scores might no longer be accurate, prompting Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, to propose the bill.

Behning said if it was up to him, he’d have kept the rescore option in, though the Indiana Department of Education’s repeated assurances that the test is OK have reduced some of his concerns.

“If the education committee, the department, everybody is going to say 100 percent with guarantee that we will have no problem using it as a baseline next year, I’m OK with that,” Behning said.

When the bill went before the Indiana House earlier this month, where it passed 86-11, Behning had already scaled back the bill’s language, instead allowing the board to rescore a smaller sample of test scores at a lower cost rather than all 500,000 tests that kids took last year.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and state board officials have said this year that they stand by the validity of last year’s test. The board announced at its last meeting that the results of a review by independent test experts showed no major problems with the accuracy of test scores. Marc Lotter, the board’s spokesman, said the board did not have a position on removing the rescore option from the bill.

“Given the potential cost to taxpayers, we will follow the direction of the Legislature on that issue,” Lotter said in an email.

The amended bill, now focused exclusively on the future of ISTEP, will next advance to the full Senate.

Other changes to the bill made today include new rules for selecting who will serve on the committee charged with deciding ISTEP’s fate, as well as the scope of that committee. The unamended bill called for a committee to study the state’s entire testing and accountability system — the current version revolves mainly around testing. The amended bill also calls for the committee to include an expanded group of educators and policymakers appointed by Ritz, Gov. Mike Pence, and Republican legislators.

A separate amendment to make Ritz a co-leader of the committee failed.

Behning said he doesn’t agree with all the changes to the bill, but he accepts that amendments are part of the legislative process. The focus, he said, should remain on Indiana’s next generation of tests.

“This process works in such a way that we all have to negotiate,” Behning said. “Obviously it’s still my bill, there’s conference committee and we’ll continue to have the debate.”

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.

tracking success

With more pathways to a high school diploma, New York education officials wonder about student success after graduation

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
The New York Board of Regents meets at its February 2019 meeting.

Over the past few years, New York state education officials have approved multiple ways students can earn diplomas, which have contributed to the rising graduation rate in New York City.  

Now, some Regents are wondering whether the pathways are actually helping students stay successful after they turn their tassels, and if these alternative routes are accessible for all students.

Graduation rates across the state ticked up very slightly — from 80.2 percent to 80.4 percent. New York City notched its highest graduation rate on record. Most of New York City’s improvement this year, where rates rose by almost 1.7 percent, could be linked to the growing number of students who are choosing to take alternative assessments to earn their diplomas and an expanded appeals process that made it easier for students to graduate despite earning a low score on a high school exit exam.

The state allows students to opt out of a social studies exit exam and substitute other assessments in math, art, or career and technical education. About 11,200 students took advantage of one of these options across the state, up from about 9,900 the year before.

“Courageous” is how Regent Kathleen Cashin, who represents Brooklyn, characterized the department and board’s decision to expand assessment options “to support our students in getting a degree they need so desperately,” she said.

“So don’t you think we should track them into college?” Cashin asked Monday as Regents reviewed the latest graduation rate data from across New York. “Let’s continue to see if the strategies that allowed them to graduate are working.”

Elia said the department would “push on that,” noting that there could be some way to partner with the State University of New York and City University of New York to determine how students are faring in college.

This is “exactly the right conversation,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director for The Education Trust-New York, a policy and advocacy organization that has tracked the changes in graduation requirements. A department official said there’s no consensus yet on how the department might measure the success of different graduation pathways. Last year was the first time the department collected data on how many students graduated using alternative assessments.

KIPP, the national charter network that has 31 high schools nationwide, including one in New York City, has devised a way, using counselors and the program Salesforce, to follow its students’ progress through college. Several states, Rosenblum said, use data systems designed to track students from early childhood all the way through college. Education officials in Minnesota use such a system to inform decision-making and “identify the most viable pathways” for success in school and work.

“The strength of those data systems is that it really enables policymakers to understand how students do throughout their educational careers and where the most successful interventions can be,” Rosenblum said. “So moving in that direction is a really important discussion to be having, and in the interim, there are positive steps that can be taken to link the data systems that the various state agencies and post secondary sectors already have.”

Some Regents and Elia also want to see how accessible different graduation pathways are to students in different districts.

Elia said the department is looking for ways to see which schools are giving students the chance to take different assessments for graduation and access other opportunities, like the My Brother’s Keeper program. The department could, for example, create a profile for each school district, she said.

Regent Lester W. Young said he wants to sample results from school districts to see which specific graduation pathways are being used — as the judicial districts that Regents members represent are sometimes too large to provide the necessary insights. He used Brooklyn as an example, which is comprised of multiple districts with vastly different socioeconomic profiles.

“Central Brooklyn is very different from the rest of Brooklyn,” Young said. “If you look at a judicial district, you don’t see what’s going on in East New York or Brownsville.”